Gabriel Boric, Last President of the Old or First President of the New?

Article by Pablo Abufom, Introduction and background by Peter Solenberger

Posted March 10, 2022

On March 11, 2022, Gabriel Boric will be inaugurated as Chile’s president, barring an earthquake, military coup, or some other unexpected event. He will be the most left-wing president of Chile since Salvador Allende, who held the office from November 2, 1970 until his overthrow and murder in a military coup on September 11, 1973.

The article excerpted below, “Gabriel Boric, Last President of the Old or First President of the New?” by Pablo Abufom explores the question posed in the title. It appeared on the Viento Sur website on December 21, 2021 here and on the Fourth International website here. We republish it now because the question it poses will begin to be answered shortly. We will start with a brief review of the history leading up to the present moment.

Allende government. Salvador Allende was a moderate member of the Socialist Party (PS) and the 1970 presidential candidate of the Popular Unity (UP) coalition. Having won a plurality but not a majority in the popular vote, he was elected president by the Chilean congress. The UP included the PS, the Communist Party (PCC), the Radical Party (PR), and most of the rest of the parliamentary left. The Christian Democratic Party (PDC) voted for Allende to be president, but declared themselves part of the opposition in congress. The UP never had a congressional majority.

Allende was committed to a parliamentary road to socialism. Still, his government nationalized the copper industry, redistributed land, expanded public works, raised the minimum wage, increased social spending, and initiated programs to improve nutrition, public health, education, housing, and culture. It promoted the rights of women and the Machupe indigenous population.

Pinochet coup. The Allende government tried to maintain good relations with the military in a constitutional framework, but the military was always hostile. Chile became increasingly polarized between the workers, the peasants, and the urban poor, who wanted the reforms to go further, and the capitalists, landowners, Catholic Church, military, and conservative sectors of the middle class.

In August 1973 the National Party (PN) and the PDC joined forces to vote 81 to 47 in favor of a resolution asking the authorities to “restore the constitutional order of the nation.” On September 11, the Chilean military under general Augusto Pinochet, urged on by the U.S. government and the CIA, obliged by staging the coup in which Allende was killed.

Dictatorship. From 1973 to 1981 the military ruled Chile directly. From 1981 to 1990 it ruled under a new constitution, adopted in 1980, which made Pinochet president-dictator and declared the army to be the guarantor of “democracy,” meaning property and order.

The dictatorship outlawed political parties and repressed unions and popular organizations. Thousands of activists were killed or disappeared, and tens of thousands were forced into exile. The dictatorship reversed most of the measures of the UP government and pioneered neoliberalism — privatization, deregulation, and the unfettered rule of the market, except for the cut taken by the military and the police.

Transition. The 1980 constitution made Pinochet dictator for a “transition period” until 1988, when military-approved parties were to become legal and a plebiscite was to decide whether to approve the military’s choice for president for eight more years. The military proposed Pinochet. The “yes” campaigned against the supposed chaos of the UP government, and the “no” campaigned against the dictatorship.

The military’s proposal lost, 44 percent to 56 percent. By then the Chilean ruling class felt that it no longer needed the dictatorship. An agreement with the institutional parties guaranteed its interests, and the dictatorship was expensive, self-serving, menacing, and embarrassing. The US government also saw the dictatorship as a liability, as it scrambled to the top of its “new world order,” which has since crumbled.

Institutionalization. After the plebiscite the military retreated into the background, although always a threat. Two coalitions moved to the foreground: the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (Concertación) and its successors, consisting of the PDC, PS, PR, and other center-left parties; and the Alliance for Chile and its successors, consisting of the National Renewal (RN), the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), the National Party (PN), and other rightist parties.

The two coalitions alternated holding the presidency and divided the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. This institutionalized a system in which the government could act only within a very narrow policy range. Whichever coalition won, the neoliberal policies introduced by the dictatorship continued.

Pink tide. The “pink tide” is the rise of center-left and left parties in Latin America from the late 1990s through the early 2010s, their ebb in the latter 2010s, and their return in the past few years. Ups and downs in mass struggle conditioned the electoral ups and downs of the parties. For example, the argentinazo of 2001 brought the left Peronists to power, disappointment with their neoliberal policy and demobilization of the mass movement cost them the 2015 election, and anger at the right and renewed mobilization brought them back in 2019.

Chile during the 2000-2006 presidency of Ricardo Lagos and the 2006–2010 and 2014–2018 presidencies of Michelle Bachelet is sometimes included among the pink tide governments. This is a mistake, since the underlying mass dynamic was absent

Chilean October. There were many struggles in Chile during the 2000s and 2010s, although they didn’t rise to the level of those in other Latin American countries and didn’t stop the alternation of center-left and right by which Chile was governed. This changed in October 2019, when a seemingly ordinary move by the government sparked a popular revolt.

On October 18 the government raised subway fares for the Santiago metro. High school students, who depended on the metro and had no extra money to hand over, began dodging payment. The next day thousands of people joined in. The government of President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and deployed the army on the streets for the first time since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990. On October 19 it rescinded the fare increase and at the same time declared a curfew in the capital. By the next day the uprising had spread and paralyzed the country.

The union leadership at first refused to call a general strike, so the movement organizations (feminist, student, environmental, etc.) called one over their heads. Seeing that they were losing control of events, the union leaders reversed themselves. The popular revolt peaked with a general strike on November 12.

Behind the scenes, the government and the opposition parties of the institutional duopoly negotiated a way out. On November 15 they signed the “Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution.” Two weeks later they promulgated the “law against rampage” to criminalize demonstrations, strikes, and other militant actions. These events are described in an International Viewpoint article The long month of October — the class struggle returns by Javier Zúñiga and Karina Nohales.

Constitutional Convention. The energy of the popular revolt flowed into the fight for a new constitution to replace the dictatorship’s 1980 constitution. The old constitution had guaranteed property and order. Many activists hoped that the new one would guarantee social welfare and democracy.

On October 25, 2020 a plebiscite asked voters 1) whether they wanted a new constitution, and 2) whether they wanted a newly elected convention to write it or a mixed convention consisting of 50 percent currently elected officials and 50 percent newly elected delegates. The vote was 78 percent for a new constitution and 79 percent for the constitutional convention to be newly elected.

Elections for members of the Constitutional Convention were held on May 15-16, 2021. The parties of order, which had hoped to use the constitutional process to suffocate the mass movement, lost badly. Of the 155 convention delegates, only 52 are active in parties, all the others are movement independents. Politically, 78 are leftists of some kind, 36 are centrists, and 41 are rightwing. These events are described in the International Viewpoint articles Popular triumph in Chile referendum by Karina Nohales and Pablo Abufom and From revolt to process by Karina Nohales.

2021 general election. The first round of the 2021 general election was held on November 21, and the second round on December 19. The elections were for president, 27 of 50 members of the Senate, all 155 members of the Chamber of Deputies, and all 302 members of the regional boards.

In the new congress the combined left coalition, including Apruebo Dignidad, New Social Pact, Dignidad Ahora and the Green Ecologist Party, has 79 deputies and 23 senators. The combined right coalition, including Chile Podemos Más and the Republican Party has 68 deputies and 25 senators. Eight deputies and two senators are not part of any coalition.

José Antonio Kast of the rightwing Republican Party led the first round of the presidential election with 28 percent of the vote to Gabriel Boric’s 26 percent. Kast’s showing alarmed many voters who had not been inspired by Boric’s candidacy, regarding him as unreliable after his signing the “Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution” in October 2019. Turnout jumped from 47 percent of eligible voters in the first round to 57 percent in the second round. Boric won, with 56 percent of the vote to Kast’s 44 percent.

This brings us to Pablo Abufom’s article “Gabriel Boric, Last President of the Old or First President of the New?” Following is the second half of the article, which explores the question posed in the article’s title. Abufom argues that popular mobilizations, independent of the Boric government, are the key to overcoming the weakness and likely vacillation of the government.

Gabriel Boric, Last President of the Old or First President of the New?

The two poles of the transformative camp: Boric and the constituent process

In this rearticulation of the political landscape in Chile, where the traditional forces of the right and the centre-left have shown their full exhaustion and lack of a project, a space for transformation has been opened, in which two sectors coexist: on the one hand, Gabriel Boric and the Apruebo Dignidad (AD, Approve Dignity) coalition, which includes the Frente Amplio (FA, Broad Front) and the Partido Comunista de Chile (PCC, Communist Party); and on the other the forces of social movements and indigenous peoples, which achieved an unprecedented space around the lists of the Constituent Social Movements, the List of the People, and constituents of Indigenous Peoples [17 seats were reserved for indigenous people] in the Constitutional Convention. It is a coexistence that is not without tension, but which at least discusses the common ground of aspirations for structural change to the 1980 regime.

While Boric has the heterogeneous mass support that I outlined at the beginning, the popular constituent sector has its strength in the fact that the fight for a new Constitution is at the centre of the current Chilean political cycle. The recent elections are an indicator of this phenomenon, insofar as each time the constituent process has been at stake, participation has been high and has leaned mainly towards the transformative pole. This occurred with the vote in the plebiscite, with 80 percent for Approval [of drafting a new constitution], in the conventional elections, where openly anti-neoliberal forces obtained the majority of the Constitutional Convention, and in the second presidential round, where there was an imminent threat of a [José Antonio] Kast government that would destroy advances in rights and block the constituent movement opened by the [2019] revolt. This was not the case with the parliamentary election, where none of the same democratic guarantees for the participation of independents, social activists and indigenous peoples were given. It is possible to affirm today that the popular sectors, the main guarantors of the constituent process, choose their electoral battles wisely within the framework of a restricted democracy.

A Boric government presents a favourable scenario for the constituent process, which will give prominence to the popular constituent forces that maintain their political independence from the government whilst sharing some key programmatic aspects. What is at stake for the popular forces inside and outside the Convention is to seize the opportunity of a favourable government to unleash the full potential of the constituent process and open a long cycle of structural transformations in the economic model, the political system, and the guarantee of social rights.

For its part, the main challenge that the Boric government will face is to manage the impasse represented by a worsening economic crisis and a Congress without clear majorities. In this difficult but not unprecedented context, Boric has the opportunity of not being a new Concertación [center-left coalition] government. The success of his government clearly depends on fulfilling the promise of change to the people who celebrated in the streets Sunday night, not to the new mandarins who, waiting for his mistakes to emerge, sharpen their teeth saying that they could have done better.

In the short term, we will see the reorganisation of the right: the parties of Chile Vamos [the rightwing coalition which took the name Chile Podemos Más in the 2021 elections and won pluralities in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate] and the Republican Party [Kast’s party] will seek to capitalise on the vote, contesting for leadership of the sector. Being in the minority in the Constitutional Convention, they will seek to give the maximum possible power to their bloc in Congress and will continue to insist on their story that in this election “the moderate Boric won”, as a way of pressuring him towards the centre. We will also see the old and exhausted Concertación making its way into the Boric government with a mixture of false adulation and underhanded threats. They will offer themselves as a guarantee of governability but will continue to be the penultimate trench of the Transition [the order established by the dictatorship to follow its direct rule]. With Boric’s well-known history of conciliation and agreements at crucial moments as a precedent, they will share with the right the task of tempting Boric towards the centre.

The first challenge facing Boric and Apruebo Dignidad will be to determine if they will take advantage of electoral victory to affirm their programme of structural reforms, or if the fear of being rejected by the transitional duopoly [the center-left and right coalitions] will cause them to moderate and move away from the social base that gave them the victory that they could not achieve by themselves in the first round.

New Tasks for the Anticapitalist Left

Contrary to the thesis that the Boric government can only be a moderate and conciliatory government, the electoral results show that there exists a people willing to defend the constituent process with all their creativity and their desire to break with the current regime. The story of moderation planted by the right, which will find an echo in the liberal sectors of Apruebo Dignidad, seeks to convey a disciplinary message: it is better to keep the radical left and social movements silent, lest they end up being responsible for a new defeat or even worse, for a new coup d’état. We are called to let Boric do his thing, without criticism that exposes him to opposition.

But the emphasis on the effective implementation of the [popular] programme is not, as some might believe, an obstacle to the realisation of transformations, but is its best guarantee. These transformations will only be possible if they have the support of a broad coalition of social and political movements that insist on the nonnegotiable aspects of the programme, the unacceptability of repression, and the urgency of overcoming right now the “as-far-as-is-possible” script of transitional change [post-dictatorship moderation]. Faced with a government susceptible to popular pressure, maintaining the political independence of social movements and the anticapitalist left with respect to the government will be key, as will be their willingness to support progress and criticise setbacks, so as not to become entangled in the ever-present but empty temptation of having power in the palace corridors in exchange for abandoning the broader horizon of transformation.

What are those essential programmatic points? In the immediate term, a tax reform that contains the economic crisis in working-class households through the cancellation of educational debt and the introduction of a universal emergency income. In the medium term, the reduction of working hours, a new pension system without AFPs [Administradoras de Fondos de Pensiones, the privatised pension system], a universal health fund and a national health care system, in addition to modifying the conditions for union collective bargaining and guaranteeing the right to strike. In the long-term we need to lay the foundations for an ecological transition where the re-nationalisation of raw materials is complemented by a reorientation of the productive matrix towards solidarity and regional integration.

Along with this, the new government will have to respond to two urgent demands from sectors that are not from its coalition, but which did support it in the second round. These are the freedom of political prisoners, both those of the Mapuche people and those incarcerated during the revolt, and the right to free, legal, safe abortion on demand. Both demands are part of parliamentary initiatives that have been blocked by the right and the centre-left. The Boric government has a historical responsibility to deal with the systematic human rights violations of the past and present, and to establish a framework of sexual freedom and reproductive justice that represents clear advances for the feminist movement and LGBTQI+ communities.

It becomes an unavoidable necessity, then, that the diverse political and social forces inside and outside the Constitutional Convention forge an alliance that unites the movements that have sustained the feminist, student, national and union mobilisations of the last decades, and integrates the archipelago of the radical left into mass activity that converts its militant potential, which has contributed so much to those same social movements, into the political capacity of the people and not just of small groups.

This popular alliance will have a difficult task: to confront the new radicalised right and its desire for anti-popular revenge. That confrontation will take place on the streets and build on lessons of self-defense acquired over many decades, most recently during the revolt. But the most lasting way to stop the far right is to win over its potential popular base to a project of anticapitalist and feminist transformation, something which can be achieved by winning better conditions of life and struggle, closing off the path to a conservative solution to the crisis. Fascism is also fought on the terrain of the daily life of the plurinational working class of Chile.

But above all, a political and social confluence like that has the opportunity to become the force that gives nationwide support to the drafting of the new Constitution and its approval in the 2022 plebiscite, and that can correct the vacillations of the new government at crucial moments in the achievement of its programme. With a blocked Congress, without a clear majority, in those moments it is popular mobilisations, like those of last Sunday [December 19, 2021, the day of the second round of the general election] that can tip the balance. The political independence and the programmatic orientation of this mobilisation will be the key to this new cycle.